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Congressman Sires Chairs Subcommittee Hearing on Root Causes of Migration from Central America

Apr 14, 2021
Press Release

(Washington, D.C.) –Today, Congressman Albio Sires (D-NJ), Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, delivered the following opening remarks at the Congressional hearing he convened entitled “Renewing the United States’ Commitment to Addressing the Root Causes of Migration from Central America”:

“I am thrilled that we have two experienced witnesses with us to discuss how to strengthen U.S. policy and foreign assistance toward Central America. I believe our goal should be to ensure that every individual throughout Central America has the chance to achieve a life of dignity and opportunity in their home country. Only then will we be able to solve the challenge of irregular migration. I know from speaking with both of our witnesses that they come to this hearing with proposals for how to do this but also eager to hear ideas from our members on what we can do better. To me, this is what the relationship between Congress and the executive branch should look like. We are here to work together on a bipartisan basis to achieve the best policy outcomes for the American people.

I have been working on these issues long enough to know that success in this effort will not be achieved overnight. It will take many years of sustained effort. I applaud President Biden for sending a clear message at the start of his administration that this issue is a priority and that he and Vice President Harris are ready to invest the necessary time and resources to achieve real progress. As we all know, this hearing comes at a moment when border arrivals are once again on the rise. Our immigration system is in dire need of reform. But the purpose of today’s hearing is to look south of the border at the issues that are forcing people to flee their homes.

My experience from traveling many times to the region is that most individuals who make this journey know that it is dangerous. They also know that it is unlikely they will be granted entry into the United States. But they are so desperate to escape that they take the costly and dangerous trip anyway. Violence, impunity, inequality, and the impacts of climate change are among the many push factors driving this trend. Hurricanes Eta and Iota hit Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua extremely hard at the end of last year, impacting as many as nine million people in Central America. In San Pedro Sula alone, hundreds of thousands of people were forced into temporary shelters after their homes were flooded. This devastation is clearly contributing to the current wave of migration and I welcome USAID’s announcement last week that it has deployed a disaster response team to address food insecurity and other humanitarian needs in the region. I also urge the U.S. Government to prioritize Central America in future efforts to distribute excess vaccines and provide resources to help countries buy COVID-19 vaccines directly.

As the U.S. Government takes a longer-term and more holistic approach to addressing migration, I believe that promoting democratic governance and human rights must be central. We need to tackle corruption. We saw progress in Guatemala and Honduras when the international community provided backing and protection to courageous domestic prosecutors. The anti-corruption mission in Guatemala helped reduce homicides by five percent annually during the ten-year period in which it operated. It showed that reducing corruption directly advances all of our other policy goals. Unfortunately, there are economic and political elites in these countries who will fight tooth and nail to protect the status quo.

In Honduras, after the international mission helped convict prominent officials like the former first lady, President Hernandez and the Honduran Congress fought back by ending its mandate and pushing through a new criminal code to reduce corruption sentences.

In Guatemala, corrupt officials were emboldened after they ended the mandate of the CICIG. Now they are trying to hijack the judicial selection process and capture the constitutional court.

We cannot respond to these setbacks by throwing our arms in the air. We should redouble our support for those investigating and prosecuting high-level corruption. That is why I included language in the Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act, which was led by former Chairman Engel and Ranking Member McCaul and was passed into law last year, to sanction officials who obstruct corruption investigations or seek to harass or intimidate anti-corruption investigators. We also need to support local civil society organizations.

In general, U.S. assistance should support bottom-up solutions that are driven by local leaders. The Inter-American Foundation provides one excellent model for this kind of work. We must also reinforce our foreign assistance with strategic diplomacy. Ambassador Popp is doing a great job in Guatemala. We urgently need Senate-confirmed ambassadors like him in El Salvador and Honduras who are deeply committed to combating corruption and protecting human rights.

Expanding lawful pathways for Central Americans to work in the United States, particularly through the H-2 visa program, should also be a part of our regional strategy.

I will close my remarks by addressing an issue that threatens to undermine our efforts to engage constructively with countries in Central America. In recent weeks, Salvadoran government officials have attempted to discredit individual members of the United States Congress or to use disinformation to misrepresent individual members’ views. Unfortunately, this campaign to manipulate public perception has been supported by millions of dollars in payments to U.S. lobbyists. Members of Congress are receiving death threats and harassment as a result. Recently, it escalated to the point where El Salvador’s head of state urged a member of Congress’ constituents to vote her out of office and disseminated conspiracy theories supported by her political opponents. This is foreign election interference. If it continues, we will confront it as a national security threat to the United States.  During his short time in office, President Bukele has achieved a historic reduction in violent crime. Maybe more importantly, he has given many Salvadorans hope and he deserves credit for that. But diplomacy is not a one-way street. Exposure to criticism is one of the burdens of leadership. Trust me, I have gotten plenty of it in my fifteen years in Congress.

I have spent my time in Congress advocating for closer U.S. engagement with countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean because I care deeply about the people in this region and I believe wholeheartedly in the capacity and autonomy of the people in this region. I want to promote U.S. interests while lifting up our neighbors throughout the Western Hemisphere. This can only be done if we engage with one another in good faith about the issues where we agree and those where we see things differently. Let’s commit to fostering a culture of integrity, decency, and mutual respect. That is what all of our constituents deserve.”